Thursday, June 01, 2006

TV a la Carte

John McCain, war hero, maverick Republican senator from Arizona and possible, if not probable, presidential candidate, has wrapped his hands around an issue that could be as sticky as Iraq or immigration.
Our TV viewing habits.
Talk about issues that hit you where you live.
McCain is busily hawking CHOICE (or Consumers Having Options in Cable Entertainment) act, a piece of legislation that would allow cable companies to compete nationally for your business, rather than only at the local level. In exchange, the pay TV folks would agree to offer channels a la carte, either individually or bundled.
This would allow you, Mr. and Ms. Viewer, to select the channels you want to pay for and opt out of those you don't. It would also, it is claimed, let you gain control over what comes into your home. Savings are promised.
The cable and satellite industry views this proposal will all the cool detachment of a guy who just discovered his 401k money was invested in Enron.
They say it undermines the economic model of the industry and would cause subscribers to pay as much, if not more, for 10 of the most popular cable channels as they know do for 60 or 70.
I don't have a whole lot of sympathy for the pay TV industry. It seems they jack up their prices every two weeks and justify it by adding channels that few if any watch.
Besides, how can you love an industry that requires you to use three different remotes to turn on the set.
To underscore McCain's positions, many industry critics cite a study that says the average subscriber watches, at most, 14 channels.
Unless you've surgically attached your remote to your arm, that number seems like an exaggeration.
I thought I'd verify my suspicions by going once around the lineup to check my own personal viewing habits.
Everyone watches the networks, CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, Fox and the like, even locals like KTLA, KCAL and KCOP (although I must confess that in 50 years of viewing, I can't ever remember watching anything on Channel 13).
The sports channels seem to get my attention a lot: ESPN, Fox Sports et al.
Then there are the cable news networks which have unleashed on an unspsecting public the ability to take a mundane subject such as Jennifer Wilbanks, the runaway bride, and talk about it non stop for hours, days, weeks. But I do check in to update myself on the news from time to time.
There's MTV and VH-1 but I seem to be about 40 years on the far side of their demographic.
There are movie channels, comedy channels, science fiction channels, children's channels, speed channels, travel channels. I drop in but only occasionally.
There are channels for women (Lifetime, Oh! and, arguably, the shopping networks).
There are channels for men (Spike and the History channel which, while not seemingly gender specific, seems to focus a lot on war and big machinery).
There is the food channel (which I enjoy but never before dinner) and the game show network (which, if I was forced to watch, would drive me to confess to war crimes).
There are ethnic channels and public access channels of every stripe.
Few if any of them have me reaching for my Tivo. But there is something to be said for a having a diverse choice.
So is McCain on to something? Should we be ordering TV channels like we order Burger King?
McCain says yes. In Canada, he argues, subscribers can buy channels individually or enjoy significant savings on a "5 pack," "10 Pack" or "1 pack"of their own choosing.
But under the McCain plan, the big channels such as CNN, Fox and ESPN would survive and thrive. Many niche products, even something as public spirited as C-SPAN, could be wiped out. It could also hurt start-ups such as Black Entertainment Television and Nickelodian which survived and thrived.
Somewhere, there is a compromise that would not force viewers to plow through 70 channels but would allow smaller products to grow. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that the solution will end up costing as much as more as we're paying now.
But it's clear change is in the wind for television viewers.
While we're waiting, we can sing along with this Bruce Springstein song:

"Man came by to hook up my cable TV "We settled in for the night my baby and me "We switched 'round and 'round 'til half-past dawn "There was fifty-seven channels and nothin' on."

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